WASHINGTON — The Defense Department has adopted a set of rules for responsible space operations amid growing concerns that rival nations are deploying weapons that could destroy U.S. satellites. 

One of those rules is to openly communicate about U.S. military space activities to prevent misunderstandings and miscalculations. However, China’s lack of transparency about its own space activities makes it difficult to reduce those risks, Lt. Gen. DeAnna Burt, deputy chief of the U.S. Space Force for operations, cyber and nuclear, said May 17.

Speaking at a space policy conference hosted by Arizona State University, Burt said a lack of communication between the U.S. and China hurts efforts to manage space traffic and prevent mishaps as each side can misinterpret the other’s intentions. 

Before being named deputy chief of space operations, Burt led the U.S. Space Command’s space-tracking organization at Vandenberg Space Force Base, California. 

In that job, Burt said, she experienced first-hand the consequences of not having open lines of communications with China, a rising space power that now operates its own space station in orbit. 

“At the Combined Force Space Component at Vandenberg, the two things that we care most about are the souls that are on orbit, not only on the International Space Station, but also the taikonauts that are on the Chinese space station,” Burt said.

‘We get no response’

U.S. Space Command crews at Vandenberg issue warnings of close approaches in orbit or potential collision to satellite operations and national agencies, including the Chinese government. But when a warning is sent out that could affect the Chinese space station, Burt said, “we get no response, no thank you, no have a nice day. Nothing.”

This is a case when “we are trying to communicate and that is not what is wanted,” she said. 

A breakdown in communication and an underlying distrust that goes both ways could lead to miscalculations and even conflict, Burt noted.

“Let’s be honest. If the Chinese called me and told me to move a satellite, I would say thank you … but I would also double check that in fact that is a threat to me before I moved it,” Burt added. “I would trust but verify.”

When it comes to the security of the space domain, open communications is key, she said. “We may not all agree. That’s okay. But if at least we’re talking, I think that is important.”

An example cited by U.S. officials of China’s lack of transparency was China’s deployment in late 2021 of the Shijian-21 spacecraft that docked with a defunct satellite and towed it to a graveyard orbit above the geostationary belt. Revelations that China had that capability raised alarms that it could be used as a weapon

If China communicated what it’s doing in space, there would be better awareness and less chance of misunderstandings, Burt said.

The United States, by contrast, openly discusses its use of Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP) inspector satellites that provide space situational awareness, she said.

“We’ve said what our capabilities are. If you are honest and say what things are and have patterns of life that indicate they are what they are, then it’s an everyday operation,” Burt said.

“But when something acts out of the ordinary, that’s where you’re operationally surprised,” Burt said. “If she’s acting differently, what is wrong? Does she have an anomaly? Is she in fact not what she said she was?”

Pentagon concerns about lack of engagement

The concerns raised by Burt also were expressed by a senior Pentagon official at an April 18 House Armed Services Committee hearing on the U.S. military posture in the Indo-Pacific region.

Jedidiah Royal, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs, said the lack of communication is raising the risk of an unintended conflict.

“We have seen the PRC demonstrate a concerning lack of interest in the important lines of communication that underpin a stable defense relationship between our countries,” Royal said in prepared testimony.

The Department of Defense “believes strongly in maintaining open lines of communication between Washington and Beijing to ensure competition does not veer into conflict,” he said.

Royal noted that immediately after the U.S. military took down China’s high-altitude balloon in February, DoD submitted a request for a call between the U.S. defense secretary and China’s minister of defense. “Unfortunately, the PRC declined our request. This was not far from the first time that the PRC has declined invitations to communicate from the Secretary, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or other Department officials.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...